Monthly Archives: March 2015

DOE – Take Two

Grab a seat and bust open that box of SnoCaps, ladies and gentlemen, because… well, does anyone really need a reason to eat SnoCaps? Since you’re eating them anyway, you might as well read about what happened next in my Teaching & Learning pre-conference experience at the U.S. DOE.

Next on stage is Emily Davis, a Teacher Ambassador from Florida with a sunny disposition. (Get it? Sunny and from Florida. Orange you glad I made that joke?) Ms. Davis tells us about a survey referred to as the TALIS, which stands for Teaching and Learning International Survey. She highlights two main points: First, when compared to our international counterparts, U.S. teachers spend more time in front of students and have less time for professional development. Second, although U.S. teachers are happy in their profession, they don’t believe society values the profession. (You know you’re in a room full of professionals when no snorts out loud and yells, “You don’t say!”)

While writing this post, I came across NCTAF’s page on TALIS, including a presentation hosted by Linda Darling-Hammond entitled “What the TALIS can Tell Us,” which I highly recommend if you’re interested in more findings.

Ms. Davis then turned our focus to the Teach to Lead initiative, a partnership between the U.S. DOE and the NBPTS. Teach to Lead is about “advancing student outcomes by expanding opportunities for teacher leadership, especially those that allow teachers to continue to teach.” As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, I am really excited about this initiative. Ms. Davis told us the following:

  • TTL highlights promising models for teacher leadership
  • TTL encourages teachers to share knowledge and resources
  • A wish-list of professional organizations supports TTL, including Hope Street Group, PDK International, NEA, AFT, VIVA, two national Principal groups, and about 60 more.
  • There are several actionable arms of the initiative: Commit to Lead, regional TTL Summits, and Local Leadership Labs. What do they have in common? Teachers getting together to share ideas, solutions, and resources for teacher-identified issues.

There’s no doubt teachers want to lead – that’s why we’re drawn to a profession that allows us to lead scores of children each day up the path to enlightenment. In fact, 55% of the people attending the workshop selected “Teacher Leadership” as their breakout subject of choice, including yours truly.

Ms. Davis wraps up her portion, and Laurie Calvert takes the mic to discuss how best to influence policy. This was such great information, I’m coming back to it in my next post. Also, it’s really freakin’ late and I need to go to sleep. Happy Friday Eve!

 

 

 

 

Ready the set – and DOE!

As part of my Teaching & Learning Conference experience, I attended a pre-conference workshop at the U.S. Department of Education.

Um, aaawwwesome.

Fade in on a girl (Smash reference – yes!): I emerge from the L’Enfant metro plaza in a new black dress and heels with the wind whipping my hair back (re: making it a frizzy mess) and “Uptown Funk” playing a continuous loop in my head. In hand is my House of Representatives padfolio (because true democracy geeks buy office supplies emblazoned with government seals), as I make a successful attempt to look like I know where I’m going. (Who needs to stop and ask the police officer directions? We’re old buddies! See you tomorrow, Officer Friendly!)

I arrive at the building with time to spare, breeze through security, find the conference room, and grab a seat next to a friend from Twitter who also won tickets to the conference.

Zoom out and pan left: Teacher-fellow James Liou takes the stage and welcomes us all then invites us to take pictures at the podium. I realize just in time that he doesn’t mean in that particular moment. Liou introduces Joy Silverman, the Dept. Chief of Staff for Policy & Programs, who provides the 80 or so attendees with the latest information on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA):

  • ESEA was first introduced 50 years ago as a civil rights law. It was meant to provide extra opportunities and support for kids who need it most.
  • No Child Left Behind (NCLB) required more accountability for resources
  • Title I was supposed to be extra money (on top of regular budget spending), but current law includes a loophole called the comparability loophole, which (to my understanding) means high-poverty schools aren’t getting extra anything from the government other than stress.
  • As of nearly two weeks ago, there was one bill in the house and a draft bill in the Senate.
  • The DOE (and many others) believes ESEA is outdated. The department says we need money for pre-K/early childhood in the bill and a concrete way to reduce overtesting. The DOE also wants to see the new bill include more resources for teachers and principals and should have ways to support innovation.
  • “Policy works best when made with people on the ground,” says Ms. Silverman at the close of her presentation.

Cue applause. There’s more to come in this suspense-filled government-educator thriller, but I’ll have to write more tomorrow. (Grape juice needs are taken very seriously around here. And I only wish I were talking about the adult version.) By means of apology, allow me to leave you with a link to more recent news on the ESEA reauthorization. Enjoy!

- Council of Chief School State Officers press release

- The National Law Review article

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Teaching & Learning & Feeling

Last week, I attended the Teaching & Learning conference, held here in D.C. and put on by the National Board of Professional Standards of Teaching (NBPTS). It was three days of back-to-back sessions and plenaries, during which I took half a legal pad’s worth of notes. I plan on writing a more fact-filled post about what I learned, but I feel compelled to write about the emotions I experienced first. Because I’m a woman and that’s what we do. While eating chocolate. So?

1. Anticipation: Although I’ve attended a handful of in-state conferences in the last four years, this was my first national conference in a long time. Also, my attendance has been primarily limited to English teachers’ conferences, so I was pretty psyched about being among fellow NBCTs from all subject areas and levels. Also, we don’t get a whole lot of men at ELA events, so hooray for people with Y chromosomes and their perspectives on education!

2. Inspired: One of the best things about conferences is their ability to emotionally move people. There’s something about being surrounded by your own kind, talking the same language, and sharing the same passions that reminds you of your love for the profession. Not to mention the words of wisdom from the big names: James McPherson, Martin Luther King, III, Ken Burns, and Sec. Arne Duncan. These people believe in teachers, and they believe in the importance of public education as a pillar of American prosperity. To have these guys on your team – well, it’s bound to make you feel good.

3. Conflicted: I would never change my decision to stay home with my kids the last four years. But damn, it’s hard to watch other people lead initiatives I’ve believed in for years, or to hear about teachers serving as ambassadors and fellows, or even to see the ways in which other teachers are making an impact on students right now. I did the math and calculated that I could have influenced 600 kids by staying in the classroom as opposed to staying at home. But how can I measure what influence would have been lost on my own two kids had I not been with them? It’s an impossible math and impossibly difficult for women (and more commonly, men) to choose – and that’s if you’re lucky enough to even have a choice. Nobody can have it all; to say otherwise is to ignore (or be ignorant of) the complexities of life. I know this truth, yet I constantly still feel the tug-of-war between domestic and professional, family and self, the werewolf or the vampire. Wait, I’ve got a call coming in – its a million women from 3rd world countries calling to tell me to shut the hell up. Moving on…

4. Called-to-action: I firmly believe that if someone had piped in “Do You Hear the People Sing” from the Les Miserable soundtrack, there may very well have been a spontaneous revolution. Desks would have been piled up to form a barricade, bottles would have been raised for days gone by, and then Jean Valjean (re: Ron Thorpe) would have led us all up the stairs of Congress to declare our freedom from high-stakes testing. Alas, a historical reenactment did not occur; however, a steady drum beat for change could be felt all three days. If a conference can have a theme, this one was “Teachers should be the leaders of their own profession, which will thereby enhance the profession as a whole.” It was invigorating to hear so many teachers discuss the ways in which they are taking on leadership positions in their schools or districts while still remaining in the classroom at some capacity. The Teach to Lead initiative, organized by the U.S. Department of Education and its Teaching Ambassadors (whom I am simultaneously jealous of, proud of, and support), is the most promising step I’ve seen in a long time toward getting educators back in the business of education reform. Sec. Duncan encouraged attendees to “make their own seat at the table,” and from what I can tell, people are trying to follow his advice.

5. Jealous: Anyone who says they don’t feel jealous of National or State Teachers of the Year is a stone cold liar.

6. Reassured: I attended a session about blogging featuring a panel of five veteran and popular education bloggers. I learned a lot from the session, but the most important moment for me happened in the hallway afterward. I happened to run into Ray Salazar, a teacher from Chicago and one of the panelists. I thanked him for a great session, and he asked me about my own blogging experience. I told him about TeacherSoup and about my journey in finding a voice online and a direction for the blog. I revealed my personal angst in wanting to be a voice in education and for teachers, but feeling a lack of authority because I haven’t been in the classroom for a few years. Here’s Ray’s reply, and why I will be forever grateful that men are different from women: “You’ve got to get over that.” My response: to tear up like I was in a made-for-TV-movie moment. Ray backed up the logic of his statement by reassuring me that I’ve got the years of experience and I also have time to reflect on my time in the classroom. We talked about ideas for how my blog could focus on the “whole teacher,” since we spend so much of our time focusing on the “whole child” everyday – usually at the expense of our own energy and time. “You’re a caregiver,” he said. And I had to agree. Ray is obviously a caregiver too, and his words and advice will stay with me as I continue to blog, to learn, to give care, and to teach.

 

 

With all due respect, Gov. Bush

Jeb BushLast weekend, The Washington Post ran an opinion piece penned by Florida’s former governor and potential presidential candidate, Mr. Jeb Bush. I felt strongly enough about the piece that I wrote my own response and submitted it to the Post. Lamentably (to me), they did not publish it this weekend, as I’d hoped. Fortunately (for me), the internet serves as a type of 5th Estate through which I can publish my thoughts and share them with the world through this blog. (Insert Newsies fist-pump.)

Click here to read Gov. Bush’s piece first.

My response to Gov. Bush’s editorial

As someone who grew up in Florida’s public education system, graduated from one of its universities, and then taught public high school there for seven years, I read former-governor Jeb Bush’s recent editorial with interest and then disappointment.

Gov. Bush’s main argument was that “the federal role should be subservient to the role of the states” in education reform. But he did not clearly explain why only states, local authorities, or parents should be making these decisions – only that the federal government shouldn’t. Isn’t the federal government run by people? Human beings who come from states and localities themselves? People who are parents too? Where are the legitimate reasons behind his point?

Also, I couldn’t help but notice that Gov. Bush failed to mention one of the largest, most important voices we should hear in education reform: that of the educators. They’re probably going to have some valid insights too.

Education reform can’t happen in isolation of any level of government. All levels provide insight into particular aspects of reform. Federal and state governments should work together to create a larger framework in which students all over our country receive a quality education, while being informed by and allowing for local innovation and professional discretion. Words like “never” and “always” don’t allow for healthy collaboration or a respect between levels of government.

The most ludicrous moment was Gov. Bush’s claim that “Federal funding has become a whipping stick to be used on local district leaders who are unwilling to go along with every program dreamed up by Washington.” I nearly sprayed coffee out my nose. The FCAT and school grading system, both of which were “dreamed up” in Tallahassee with Gov. Bush at the helm, have been the whipping sticks of Florida’s schools since 1999. As a former public high school teacher, there was no larger, looming pressure than FCAT testing. School grades, largely based on FCAT scores, meant schools were touted or tortured, depending on how students performed. We didn’t have local control over FCAT or its implementation; teachers didn’t even control how FCAT Writes was assessed – that job was often farmed out to anyone with a bachelor’s degree who applied via Kelly Services.

Those who built glass houses (and aspire to White ones) should be careful at whom they cast their stones.

I don’t doubt Gov. Bush’s concern and commitment to education reform, but I am exhausted by black and white, polarized thinking. Education reform is neither an easy journey, nor a short one. There is no reason why the states can’t drive, then switch off with the feds, then let parents and teachers take the wheel. We’re all adults in the same car, after all. Most importantly, we’re driving our children and the future of this country, so we can’t afford to get lost.

 

 

An idea: Teachers create a National Congress of Educators

In my last post, I asked myself and my reader(s), “Why doesn’t our word carry weight?” Shortly thereafter, I closed the post by asserting, “It is long past due that teachers define the image of the profession themselves and from within their own ranks.” 

The next day, I still agreed with myself. However, I hadn’t given anyone, including myself, any ideas on HOW to do such a thing.

I first started thinking about the organizations for teachers that exist today and their role in education.

The most obvious place to start is with the teachers’ unions, notably the American Federation of Teachers and the National Teachers Association.

When I first started teaching, I became a member of my local union. They were engaged in reform of the salary schedule and I believed in their cause. Several years later, I was offended by the caustic attitude and approach of our state’s union leaders, and I also disagreed with them on several key issues, so I stopped my membership.

A quick Google search says there are 3. 7 million teachers in the U.S. The NEA’s website says they have 3 million union members and the AFT site states they have more than 1 million members.

So do teachers keep getting pushed around then? Why aren’t the unions more powerful in affecting public policy? To the Google machine!

I found a slightly-dated article on Politico that outlined some of the problems and includes this quotation:

“People increasingly view teachers unions as a problem, or the problem,” David Menefee-Libey, a politics professor at Pomona College who studies education politics. That’s a striking shift, he said, because “for decades the unions were viewed as the most likely to contribute to the improvement of public education.”

Why do people view unions as a problem? According to several articles, the problem stems from the unions’ position on hiring and firing teachers. So maybe I’m not as much of an outlier as I thought, because one of my reasons for stopping my union membership was this very topic.

Unions exist to defend and support their members. The existence of unions have been of historical importance to our country, and I think they fulfill an important role in protecting workers’ rights.

Here we have the crux of the problem: the purpose of unions, to protect workers’ rights, has largely dealt with issues of money and legality of hiring or firing practices. These are not the same as professional standards.

So we have a loss of public and professional faith in the unions, but a growing (or continuing, depending on your perspective) frustration from educators who feel they have little autonomy in their jobs and little power to affect change. Makes for a bunch of pissed off people, and certainly an unhealthy system.

Moving away from unions, I began thinking about other educational organizations. It is a testament to educators and our desire for professionalism that so many exist. For example, I joined the National Council of Teachers of English and the Florida Council of Teachers of English while still in graduate school. I maintained my membership with both until last year, when I moved. I love these organizations deeply, because they gave me a sense of professionalism more than anything else in my teaching career.

In the last five years, NCTE has increased its advocacy efforts by in large part by establishing an office in Washington, D.C. and implementing an annual Advocacy Day. They have created a Policy Platform and post recommendations for policymakers. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics also has a page on its site dedicated to advocacy, as does the National Council for Social Studies. The National Science Teachers Association has its own Communications, Legislative, & Public Affairs team.

So based on their particular subject area or at which level they teach (elementary, secondary, etc.), there exist organizations which classroom teachers can join. But what about an overall body or organization that doesn’t delineate between grade level or subject? To the Google machine!

Fairly quickly, I came across the American Association of Educators, an organization with which I was unfamiliar. The AAE defines itself as a “non-union professional educators association established in 1994 by nationally recognized educators who saw the need for a professional organization that focused on student achievement without an emphasis on partisan politics.”  According to their website, the AAE provides “professional services” and “only take policy positions on issues germane to education.” They also have liability insurance for members, but they do not engage in collective bargaining. Mainly, they seem to define themselves by what they are not – a union. Their policies seem entirely based on a membership survey, and I couldn’t find anything about a conference or process for discussion.

After thinking about all of these organizations, I still feel something is missing. There’s a void somehow.

My dream: that teachers create their own nationwide forum for discussing, debating, disagreeing, and deciding on our education system. Teachers’ professional opinions should play a larger role in education policy. But “should” is about as far as we’ve gotten. We must take action as well – action that sets our professionalism on display and makes us better professionals at the same time.

So I’m going to throw this idea out there into the online world: what if we had a National Congress of Educators?

Bear with me as I share the bare-bones of my idea. There are two houses: the Delegation and the Body.

The Delegation would be modeled after the House of Representatives. Teachers can run to be a Delegate from their region. Only current classroom teachers have the power to vote on their Delegate. These Delegates serve to represent their delegation of teachers by gathering their opinions and using that information to vote on issues at the NCE Annual Meeting (more on that in a minute).

The Body would be modeled after the Senate. Organizations that represent educators of various sects (subject area, grade level, specialization) would have long-term seats in this house and would provide the kind of wisdom that comes from a long history of working with educators on a national level.

Every summer, the National Congress of Educators would convene. Everyone is welcome to attend, just like any citizen can watch a session at the Capitol, but only Delegates can take the floor to speak or cast a vote in the Delegation, and only representatives from the organizations in the Body can speak or cast a vote. All of this business would be conducted in public.

The Delegation and the Body can put forth policy, legislation, or recommendations. Ideally, committees would be formed to reflect and refine these items before they come up for a vote, just like in the government. Again, all of this would  be done openly and publicly since every teacher has a voice and a vote. It would seem natural that joint committees may even form to create a constant bridge between the Delegation and the Body.

Something like the NCE would make every teacher part of the process of reform and on our own terms. Maybe we wouldn’t have power at first, but I’d like to dream that eventually an organization that was created by U.S. educators in order to better U.S. education would mean something to the counterparts in our state capitals or Washington, D.C.

The Women’s Rights movement started with a meeting. Why can’t the same be true for teachers?

 

 

 

 

Going Pro in Education

Flashback to a week ago: I have embarked on a (modest) quest to save update education in America. I went online in search of articles written by those more intelligent than myself and did not have any difficulty finding such information. This past September, the New England Journal of Public Policy, published by the University of Massachusetts, devoted an entire issue to the topic of education. All of the articles had to use the “2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores as a starting point and address the obstacles to education reform.” The site allows people to download the articles, and so I did.

I’ve read four of the articles thus far, covering a wide range of aspects of U.S. education. In my next few posts, I’d like to offer some commentary, thoughts, opinions, and conclusions I’ve drawn from my readings, as part of my quest to answer my own questions. (Sorry about the “questing” motif; I may be listening to the instrumental music from Lord of the Rings right now.)

Going Pro

I always considered teaching to be a profession. I entered the classroom with that mindset after graduating from the ProTeach program at the University of Florida. I held myself to professional standards, but I also realized there were fundamental differences between the environment and system in which I worked as compared to those of other professions, namely doctors and lawyers.

Ronald Thorpe, the President of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, begins his article entitled “Sustaining the Teaching Profession” by asking, “Is Teaching a Profession?” I think many educators would agree with me in saying I behaved as a professional, but in many ways was not treated as a professional. Thorpe argues convincingly that such conflict arises from the sad-but-true fact that teaching is not a true profession right now.

Why not? Some of Thorpe’s reasons echoed questions I’ve pondered before. For instance, does our lack of political and systematic influence stem from the roots of our fore-teachers? Think about it. Those who stood in front of the K-12 chalkboard were single women and spinsters; later, they were educated women who faced three career options if they wanted to work. I don’t think anyone would argue those women were in a position of power. Have teachers gained any power since those days? Thorpe writes, “we are talking about a workforce, unlike that of any other profession, that is made up mostly of middle-class women who take care of children.” It is unclear whether he means our students or our own children, but the point is nearly moot as most teachers are doing both.

Thorpe follows this consideration of gender with another painfully on-point point: “Furthermore, teachers do work that most people think anyone can do.” That’s the damn truth. It’s like when I first became a stay-at-home mom and my husband wondered why I couldn’t keep up with the dishes. Walk the walk, man, and you’ll find out. (He did. We’re still happily married.)

This belief that anyone can be a teacher is perpetuated by the fact that in many places, anyone can be a teacher. As an educator from Florida, I’m well-aware that someone can be hired for a teaching position and given three years to obtain their certification. If you have 25 high school students in six classes a day for three years, that equals 450 students. That number again is 450 students being taught by someone who is not fully trained to be a teacher. Hurts your brain, doesn’t it?

Here’s one of Thorpe’s main points and strongest opinions:

“Every profession has a culture that is shaped by a shared experience that in turn is defined by the profession’s standards and expectations. The experience must be universal, and everyone must travel the same path into and through the profession. Teachers complain that they do not receive the respect they deserve, but respect seldom comes from asking for it. It is hard-earned, and it comes not from what one member of the profession does but from what they all do.”

Same path? Universal experience? The part of me that embraces choice feels a little queasy. And yet, there’s an undeniable truth here. We respect other professions because of the high bar they set for themselves. We know them to govern themselves, from college all the way into their careers. We admire those who pass the LSAT and MCAT. We trust their expertise in large part because they’ve proven it to their own colleagues.

In teaching, others set the bars for us. Various levels of governments and politicians have regulated and governed our training, education, requirements for hiring, evaluations, and requirements for firing. Think about all of the things teachers have had impressed upon them from “above” and ask yourself: do doctors have to deal with this shit?

Another article in the journal, written by Florida teacher Catherine Boehme, is entitled “School Reform in Canada and Florida: A Study of Contrast.” It’s a fascinating read, and I plan to use more of Ms. Boehme’s insight in future posts, but for now I want to connect Mr. Thorpe’s comments to the teaching environment in Alberta, Canada, as observed by Ms. Boehme. Here are a few key points:

  • “[In Alberta] There exists a “strict requirement that teachers earn a full teaching certificate before stepping into a classroom as the teacher of record.”
  • “Teachers and school principals in Alberta may not be licensed unless they have completed all certification courses, including 48 credits (semester hours) in pedagogy and at least 24 credits in a particular subject specialty, and at minimum a full, supervised ten-week (250 hour) internship.”
  • “Unlike many states in the United States, including Florida, Alberta offers no alternative routes to a teaching certificate.”
  • Florida now fills 35% of the state’s teaching vacancies with untrained or minimally trained individuals. With about nine thousand teachers leaving the profession each year, the number of poorly qualified individuals filling teacher vacancies in Florida is shocking.”

And finally, a related point raised in an article from the same journal written by Linda Darling-Hammond: “As segregation and school funding disparities grew worse throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the practice of lowering or waiving credentialing standards to fill classrooms in high-minority, low-income schools – a practice that is unheard of in high-achieving nations and in other professions – became commonplace in many U.S. states, especially those with large minority and immigrant populations, such as California, Texas, Florida, and New York.”

So we face a problem. Teachers are not truly respected because we are not truly seen as experts who can govern ourselves. How else to explain the degree to which others with no experience in education profess to know what’s best? And if complaining and protesting were enough, wouldn’t we have seen a difference by now?

Why doesn’t our word carry weight?

Our collective word must come from our collective expertise. To establish unquestionable, undeniable expertise – the kind that makes classroom teachers an actual force with which to be reckoned – we must join together to create, support, and advocate for a professional path to becoming a teacher. This challenge can only be taken up by educators if it is to be a defining moment for teaching as a profession.

In his article, Thorpe says, “Professions are more like Michaelangelo’s figures waiting to be released from a great hulk of stone.” For decades, everyone else has been chipping away at educators. It is long past due that teachers define the image of the profession themselves and from within their own ranks.

michelangelo-s-david